By Barry Klassel
Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University
Are human beings agents in the decision making process that determines our future or is that an illusion? Are we, rather, pulled along by an inanimate chain of cause and effect beyond our control? This is the classic question of ‘free will.’ Do we have it or not? I think it’s important to present a humanist perspective.
First of all, what is the ‘will?’ To put it as simply as I can, it is the conscious sensation of making choices and controlling one’s actions to further our goals and satisfy our desires. I believe there is an important way in which humanists should embrace the notion of free will for ourselves, our children and others, i.e. with the goal of increasing, as much as we can, the degree of freedom we have in exercising our wills.
Options, Skills, & Applying Our Values
Free will involves making decisions and decisions always have realistic constraints, whether they are about trivial matters or more significant ones. We can’t choose chocolate ice cream if only vanilla is available. Someone may not be able to attend their college of choice if the financial aid doesn’t come through. Average citizens can’t choose their leaders if their society isn’t democratic; women can’t vote if the law excludes them. What we should support is a society in which there is greater personal, educational, social and political freedoms for all. Having more choices and fewer constraints in making those choices maximizes free will.
Just as importantly, we should also promote the best decision making skills. Some decisions involve critical intellectual evaluation and collecting data. This includes, in fact, taking into account the causal factors that lead to the effects we want. Some decisions involve weighing emotional responses. Some require creative use of our imaginations. Many important decisions involve all of the above. Think, for example, of the process one goes through in settling on a college or a career, choosing where to live or who to count as a friend, deciding how to spend one’s day or one’s lifetime. Many factors are involved in making these determinations.
Maximizing free will doesn’t require us to ignore our likes and dislikes, our natural predilections. On the contrary, it encourages us to take them into account or else we would choose badly. Nor does it require us to ignore advice that is offered. We may choose to follow others’ suggestions if they appear well suited to the issues we face. Nor is our goal always to satisfy our own needs. Making moral choices means applying our values to the needs of others. And when we are making a decision we can decide, for example, to gather more information, re-evaluate where we are, postpone our final selections, or flip a coin. There is a real process that can go on.
Free Will Isn’t About Cause & Effect
The kind of free will I’m talking about doesn’t contradict cause and effect. But what I’m espousing I believe to be good and liberating regardless of what caused me to believe so. And my argument acknowledges something central to our everyday experience. Our conscious wills are at play in the important foreground of our lives as we interact with the world. No doubt the molecules in our brains are at play at the same time, but if we reduce our conscious activities and worldly interactions to what takes place at a chemical or neural level we are engaging in a reductionism that has insufficient explanatory power.
Furthermore, if we dismiss all decision making as predetermined, we risk losing the determination to do the work it takes to make important decisions. Saying to someone “you can’t really choose” shuts down the process before it gets started and begins turning us into devalued, mechanistic entities. Saying to someone “It’s your choice” activates the process, promotes thoughtfulness, independence, creates a greater sense of responsibility and increases our chances of earning our happiness. As humanists who value science as well as human welfare, we would do well to see ourselves as agents in determining the future direction of our lives.
Barry Klassel (Chaplain, Humanist Community @ Rutgers) Barry is currently Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University. After studying psychology at Columbia College, Barry earned a Masters degree in theater at the University of Pittsburgh. He also attended the MFA in Acting program at Florida State. He has acted and directed in a variety of plays in NYC and elsewhere. He last directed a play by Tom Flynn on post-apocalyptic America called Messiah Game. Currently, and in addition to his work at Rutgers, Barry performs in an arts-in-education program and volunteers on a crisis/suicide hotline. You can read more about Barry at the Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy website.